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The Coal Branch
Toni Ross is the historian of the Coal Branch and authored Oh!
the Coal Branch: A Chronicle of the Alberta Coal Branch (Calgary:
D. W. Friesen and Sons Ltd., 1974). The book includes
much information about the mine operations as well as some
family histories. The majority of Italian names listed
are to do with mining accidents and deaths. She provides
the following summary of the various mining operations in the
Mountain Park Area (Mercoal, Leyland, Cadomin, Luscar, Kaydee
and Mountain Park itself):
Mountain park Coal Company Ltd.
Cadomin Coal Co.
Luscar Coal Co.
Mt. Cheviot Coal Co., Ltd.
K.D. Collieries Col, Ltd.
King Coal Co.
North American collieries
Yellowhead Coal Co.
Beacon Coal Co.
Lakeside Coal Co., Ltd.
Canadian Collieries Resource Ltd.
Stupor, Oakley & Co.
Mt. Cheviot Coal Co. Ltd.
Canadian Collieries Ltd.
Bryan Coal Co.
Vitality Coal Co.
Sterling Valley Coal Mine
Val d'Or Collieries
King Coal Ltd.
Alberta Canadian Collieries
Newcastle Junior Mining
Vitaly coal Co.
S. Blackmore Collieries Ltd.
These operated from 1911 to 1960 and employed
a large number of Italians, as evidenced by the number of
individuals listed in the Pioneers section based on Toni Ross'
record of mine accidents and fatalities. Her account provides
information about strikes, mine closures and lay-offs.
As well, she describes a comfortable and privileged life style
for the mine managers including sporting activities (tennis,
hockey games, etc.) as well as theatrical performances.
The Coal Branch also boasted two symphony orchestras.
These activities took place in stunning mountain scenery that
encouraged hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits. In
spite of the harsh life for miners, the few Italian families
that provided family histories, all talk about how wonderful
it was to live and work in the Coal Branch communities.
Of course, they were writing 16-24 years after some final mine
closures and their memories were undoubtedly clouded by
nostalgia. But Ross' account is startling in its
juxtaposition of violent death and the frequent impossibility
of finding remains for burial and a detailed account of the
round of community social activities. Perhaps that is
the paradox of working in resource-based Alberta communities
in the past 100 years.
An important aspect of mining history is issues of government regulation as well as unionization. This subject deserves extensive coverage in its own right but reference here
will be made primarily to material pertaining to Italian immigration history. A primary source book is the hearings of the Alberta Coal Mining Industry Commission in 1919.
Selections from the hearings were published by the Historical Society of Alberta in 1978, edited and with an introduction by University of Calgary historian David Jay Bercuson.
¹ Bercuson notes that the Commission was formed at a time of labour unrest and business uncertainty. Hearings lasted for two-and-a-half months beginning October 6th in Edmonton. Other sites included Calgary, Drumheller, Lethbridge, Wayne, Edson and Blairmore. The Index of Witnesses provide a "quick" overview of the key mining companies in the province and interests represented. Of
12 recommendations, only three deal with issues pertinent to the miners.
Bercuson's selection, most of the evidence in hearings is given by mine owners and other officials with a minority representing the unions and individual miners. It is clear from the testimony that the mining companies want to be able to address issues of over-production and also to get into markets, such as Manitoba, where they are excluded and US coal has a monopoly. Bercuson notes that the War had temporally solved the problems of over-supply, but, with the coming of peace, mine owners wanted to deal with issues of production, the power of American unions, and the fact that immigrants through the unions had what appeared to them as too much control. Wording of these concerns relates to "enemy aliens" and is partly rooted in the hostilities felt by many about Europeans, which was to result in more restrictive immigration.
Ostensibly, the Commission also wants to address issues of conditions in the mines, but the recommendations deal largely with the regulation of the industry, including consolidation, and worker concerns appear to be given short shrift.
One of the miners who testified is
Italian-S. Centazzo-who is listed as an unemployed miner from Edmonton. He is 23 years old and he indicates that he has worked in the mines in different parts of Alberta for 15 years. He has been locked out of mining jobs because of his union activities including being Chairman of the Humberstone miners. He appears very articulate and knowledgeable and would certainly have been viewed as a dangerous militant. He speaks immediately after G.S. Montgomery, General Manager, Alberta Coal Mining Co. Ltd., Edmonton, who attacks the unions and wants to restrict the voting rights on non-British miners.
Centazzo, when asked by Chairman
J. R. Stirling, if he has anything further to say, states: "Well, I don't know; according to the previous speaker I shouldn't be allowed to speak for the simple reason I'm not English speaking. I don't know if you will allow me to."
² He is challenging authority but then proceeds to deal with concrete miners' concerns about what they are entitled to but don't get-for example hot water to wash themselves, heated washhouses as they come off shift and drying boxes to dry their clothes. He is challenged to state which mine he is referring to and he replies: "I will not take just one mine. I take in general. Because it's not fair to ask one fellow and leave the other out." He also makes recommendations with respect to safety lamps requesting that miners be allowed to carry small electric lamps in their pockets as a safety precaution in case of an explosion to help them get out of the mine. He also asks for blankets in the mine as well as stretchers to carry out the injured and enforcement of legal limits to hours of work.
What emerges is a grim picture of the appalling conditions in the mines and the exploitation of workers not only on the job (including "docking" their pay packets for "dirty" coal) but through poor company housing and "gouging" through the company shops. The protection provided by legislation is imperfect and the unions are struggling to improve conditions but also to entrench themselves. Is it any wonder that Italian miners felt the need to have their own fraternal societies?
While most Italians were hard-working and law abiding, there
was one colourful
exception, Emilio Picariello, "Emperor Pic" or
"the Al Capone of the Pass" (the Chicago leader of a
powerful Italian gang). According to the Frontier Guide to the
Romantic Crow's Nest Pass, Picariello emigrated from Italy and
began work in Fernie by operating an ice cream cart. He
prospered and ended up with his own macaroni factory, cigar
factory and, eventually, the Alberta Hotel in Blairmore in
8 In 1921, he was a Blairmore town
councilor. Whether he was a hardened criminal or not, or just
an opportunist, is not clear. His generosity to the poor is
noted. In July, 1915, the Government of Alberta voted for
prohibition as had many US states. Bootlegging became a
profitable occupation and no-more-so than in Blairmore since
BC had not adopted prohibition.
Local groups fought for the profits. As a result of a liquor
raid going wrong, a young woman whose husband was involved in
the bootlegging business, Filumena (Flo) Lassandro is
convinced to take the responsibility for the crime (instead of
Picariello) of killing Constable Dawson, under the mistaken
belief that the authorities would not execute a woman. This
was proved wrong and she was hung in the Fort Saskatchewan
penitentiary at the age of 22.